“How The Last Jedi Defies Expectations” Video Explores How Insecure Masculinity Fuels the Backlash
“There is a common thread running through much of the backlash that speaks to an underlying anxiety—an anxiety rooted in deep-seated insecurities about masculinity,” is how the always-excellent Pop Culture Detective kicks off his exploration of Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
The Pop Culture Detective, a.k.a Jonathan McIntosh, has made some of my favorite visual and philosophical breakdowns of media, with the stated goal of “focusing on the intersections of masculinity, politics and entertainment.” Here at The Mary Sue, we’ve loved his takes on The Big Bang Theory, toxic masculinity in Jedi culture, the problematic trope of “stalking for love” and more. To see him tackling The Last Jedi and the seemingly never-ending fan backlash to the movie is a gift.
“Let me briefly explain what I mean,” the Pop Culture Detective continues, in regards to tying anxiety about masculinity to The Last Jedi‘s reception among certain segments of fans. “Leading men in action adventure movies are expected to be decisive, righteous, respected, and to take charge in most situations. Men are expected to achieve success by becoming progressively more and more powerful as the story unfolds. This expectation is part of a long-running tradition in Hollywood, and the formula is so entrenched in mass media that many fans feel aggressively entitled to seeing that particular version of manhood reproduced on the big screen.”
The Last Jedi, however, subverts these expectations, and it does so in a way that leaves little room for ambiguity: “As The Last Jedi begins, it quickly becomes apparent that this movie isn’t interested in catering to a simple vicarious power fantasy. All three male heroes are presented as vulnerable in their fallibility, with each displaying their own set of rather significant character flaws and inadequacies.”
To wit, at the start of the movie, Luke Skywalker has retreated due to his shame and guilt over the Kylo Ren incident, Poe thinks that he knows better than his superiors and damn the consequences of defying them, and Finn is ready to get the hell out of the rebellion. McIntosh does point out that flawed heroes are nothing new, and that overcoming one’s flaws is a standard set-up for many a movie hero (or really, every hero’s journey ever).
Here’s the rub with The Last Jedi, though, and why the Pop Culture Detective thinks it rubs so many male Star Wars fans the wrong way: “I’d argue the intense fan hate surrounding The Last Jedi has a lot more to do with the fact that the male heroes in this movie are directly challenged on their failures by women. This is not something that’s supposed to happen to space cowboys, or space wizards, in Hollywood blockbusters. Women aren’t supposed to interfere with a man’s heroic journey.”
The video then takes a deep dive into how each of the three male heroes of The Last Jedi—Luke, Finn, and Poe—totally flip how we’ve long been trained to expect action-movie heroes to behave (at least at first). All of the men have their shortcomings called out by women (Rey, Rose, and Leia and Holdo, respectively), and all are eventually inspired by their interactions with these women into becoming better versions of themselves.
I’m particularly fascinated by the look at how Finn was “denied” a glorious martyrdom in the scene where Rose intercepts his suicide mission, and how often movie redemption for men is tied to our shared cultural conceit that there’s something laudable for a man to go out in a sacrificial blaze of glory.
“How The Last Jedi Defies Expectations” is thoughtful and thought-provoking. The Last Jedi is by no means a perfect film, but my personal issues with it stem from extraneous plotlines (like Rose and Finn on the casino space horse world Canto Bight) or underdeveloped moments (Finn and Phasma’s final battle; basically, Finn was robbed in TLJ).
Watching The Last Jedi, I never felt like the characters were untrue to their past incarnations or that the ethos of Star Wars was not present. All that is new is the front-and-center involvement of several women in essential roles, something it never would have occurred to me to question.
The idea that a young woman like Rey would have something important to teach an older male mythic figure like Luke Skywalker is erroneously viewed by some male fans as emasculating. It’s worth pointing out that angry fan defensiveness isn’t necessarily just a reaction to women existing in popular science fiction stories. If women are included alongside male heroes in a way that doesn’t overshadow, upstage, or interfere with traditional expressions of masculinity, then we don’t see these same kinds of extended temper tantrums from male fans, especially if the female characters in question are cast as young, white, and conventionally attractive.
The Last Jedi isn’t satisfied with simply including women. It goes much further, and puts female characters in positions of institutional power or moral authority over male heroes. The movie then has these women leverage that power to challenge and ultimately force change in men’s behavior, and that is almost unheard of in a blockbuster film.
While the movie places women in positions of power and influence, McIntosh emphasizes that there’s by no means an agenda of “masculine inferiority” in The Last Jedi. Rather, the story takes pains to give these men fleshed-out narrative arcs (one might even argue that they receive far more development than the women, who are there to steer them in the right direction).
This is one of the reasons that the backlash puzzles me. Men still get to be the central heroes and antagonists of The Last Jedi, and Luke Skywalker takes on the entire First Order by himself in the finale. Was it really so terrible or unbelievable that it took the involvement of a young woman to get him there?
It appears that the confident displays from men that cap off the film— Luke’s showdown with his evil nephew Kylo Ren, or Poe’s move towards becoming a savvier leader, or Finn’s newfound dedication to the cause of the Rebellion—were overshadowed by a theme so distasteful to some Star Wars fans that they are still boycotting the franchise:
“The Last Jedi is a story about men learning to trust women’s ideas and decisions and then becoming better people and better heroes because of it. And while that might be an unexpected lesson for a Star Wars story, it’s a vital lesson that men need to learn if we are to achieve gender equality,” McIntosh concludes.
Unfortunately, the wildly furious blowback to seeing this lesson play out onscreen shows that we have a long way to go.
You can follow the Pop Culture Detective on Twitter. Consider subscribing to McIntosh’s Patreon so that McIntosh and his team can keep delivering such important and incisive trips through our cinematic galaxy.
(via Pop Culture Detective on YouTube, image: Lucasfilm/Disney)
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